Since he was eighteen, Ben had always lived alone. This was not to be mistaken for "lonely", it was just Ben had always been busy, and nowadays, his work took over his life. Having a roommate would be impossible.
That's why, when his doorbell rang one early evening, Ben couldn't think who it would be. He hadn't been expecting anyone. Cautiously, Ben opened the door.
Standing on the doorstep, cowering away from the rain, was none other than Alex Rider.
"Alex!" Ben exclaimed, unsuccessfully trying to hide the surprise from his voice. "Come in."
Alex did not hesitate to accept his offer. Outside, the weather was near a full out downpour, and the wind was cold as ever. "I'm sorry to barge in on you like this, but I was out for a walk and from nowhere it just started to come down like this! Do you mind if - ?"
Ben smiled. "Stay as long as you like. You're always welcome here, Alex. You know that."
Alex clapped him on the back. "Thanks mate," he said, heading to the bathroom to hang up his sopping wet coat. He moved through the flat with comfort and ease; it was nearly as familiar as his own home to him.
The first year Alex had worked with MI6 it had been really tough. He had felt alone and disconnected from everyone around him. That's when Ms Jones had suggested he and Ben spend some time together. Since then, Alex had always come round whenever he felt he needed to talk with someone who understood him. It wasn't even that they always discussed their work; actually, on the contrary, they had quickly found neither of them expressed much interest in discussing that aspect of their life. Instead they talked about everyday things: school, friends, family, girls, and football.
Sometimes, when Jack was staying at her boyfriends', if he didn't want her to see his latest injuries, or if he just needed a break, Alex would use the spare bedroom at Ben's. If Alex wanted to talk about it, they did, but Ben never forced things or made him feel uncomfortable. In the past two years, their relationship had grown into that of brotherhood.
Alex returned to the living room in a spare set of dry clothes that Ben let him keep here. Ben had made tea and heated up some delivery pizza, setting it on the coffee table in front of him.
Shaking out the rain from his hair, Alex asked "How's Shae?" Ben's girlfriend.
"Over. She started getting too curious."
Things like this seemed to happen a lot in their line of work. Nobody could be trusted to get close enough to form a real relationship. The ability to confide in one another without any pretence made Alex and Ben that much closer.
"Ah, well. Next time, mate."
"No worries. It had just been a laugh."
And so their ordinary conversation continued. Each was comfortable in each others company, and soon the evening had been chatted away with dirty jokes, sports arguments, and the like.
However, Ben noticed that Alex seemed to be a little off, his mind distracted; somewhere else. Ben thought it might be time to bring up something that had been on his own mind for a while.
"You were in the hospital. Why?"
Alex's hand moved subconsciously to touch the left side of his torso. "Blood poisoning."
Ben raised his eyebrows in anticipation. He knew there was more that Alex wasn't telling him. Alex averted his eyes, picking out a spot on the floor to concentrate on. "And I was shot again."
Silence. Alex waited. When he couldn't take it any more, he looked expectantly up at Ben.
"I know," said Ben, slowly. "I saw the report. Why didn't you tell me sooner?"
Alex hesitated, struggling to find an acceptable answer. "I didn't want to make a big deal. I don't know. It's nothing."
"What are you taking?"
"You have antibiotics for your septicaemia. And you've been taking them twice a day, I expect?"
"Alex!" Ben's voice was full with irritated concern.
"Yes, I've been taking them! Mostly..."
Ben sighed and let it go. He didn't want to lecture Alex about taking his medicine. Normally, he wouldn't be so sharp, but blood poisoning was serious, and he didn't want Alex's wound to become dangerously infected.
"I'm fine, Ben, really. I was careful; you know I always am."
Ben knew Alex was, in fact, very careful. It sickened him to think about what situation Alex had been in to acquire the infection. Of course, Ben had seen the file, but the details about Alex's hospitalization had been kept classified. All he knew was how terrifyingly dangerous the mission had been, and how close MI6 had come to losing their best agent.
Ben's expression softened. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Alex was famed for never showing any signs of weakness or vulnerability, but now as he sat in Ben's living room, his expression darkened and he chewed nervously on his lip. His eyes glazed over as he disappeared into a series of memories. Absentmindedly, Alex's hand went again to his left, and he traced the flesh around his bandaged wound, none too lightly.
With a sharp gasp of pain, Alex drew his hand away, seemingly unaware of the pressure he had been putting on his gash. Breathing heavy, his eyes met Ben's helplessly uneasy expression with embarrassment.
"Let me have a look, then," Ben said quietly, gently tugging on the edge of Alex's shirt.
Years ago, Ben had been the team medic for his unit. Since then, his medical training had only improved. He was one of the best MI6 had to offer. But professional recognition aside, he was one of Alex's closest friends, and Alex put a lot of trust in him.
"Just as your mate. I swear, if it's too much, I'll drop it."
Alex sighed, nodded and stood up, trying to blink the light headedness away. He'd forgotten how much it hurt. Alex removed his shirt, ashamed of the scars and bandaging on his body.
Ben couldn't help but notice that while Alex usually carried himself well, he seemed to be moving with caution and uncertainty. White bandages covered his left side from just above his hipbone, and curved around his back to a couple inches below his armpit– the same spot Alex seemed to be favouring beforehand. Another set of white dressings were covering just below is ribcage on his right side, where he must have been shot. These bandages were less intense, and Ben assumed the wound hadn't been too nasty from the start.
Alex sat down onto the couch and Ben beside him. Lightly, Ben gave Alex a gentle push forward to expose the injured area on his back and side. Alex rested his elbows on his knees as Ben began to remove the bandages over his wound, shivering at Ben's touch.
Ben shuddered as he caught his first view of the damaged flesh. Fresh blood ran down Alex's back, and Ben wiped it away. Two dozen stitches held the long curving gash up the side of Alex's torso together. The skin around the wound was red and swollen, but beginning to heal nicely. To the touch it was warm, but not dangerously hot. Still, the gash was brutally nauseating, and Ben cursed under his breath. He set his emotions aside, he prepared to clean and dress it.
Alex was rather skilled at shutting pain out of his brain. He relaxed his body, and let his breathing slow down a bit, coming deep and even. Alex's eyes fluttered shut and he let his mind wander…
When they had caught him, Alex thought he would be killed straight away. In truth, there really was no reason to be keeping him alive. He knew he had lost, and he accepted.
Still, as the sharpened knife had been brought down on him, he had struggled, thrashing and kicking against the restraints binding him. Instead of one fatal slash, the blade had been inadvertently redirected, plunging instead into the left side of his back. As Alex attempted to squirm away, the knife dragged down the side of his torso, and Alex cried out as he saw the blood spill like a flood from the wound.
Alex's eyes had rolled back into his head, and he lost consciousness.
When he awakened, he was in a wet, dirty cellar. They had left him to die, uncaring as to what would claim his life; exposure, blood loss, hunger, blood poisoning or insanity. After all, it had been his fault. He could have died quickly; a painless slit of the throat. He drifted through hazy waves of unconsciousness; sometimes shivering violently as he came to, or else trying to sweat his fever out, the hallucinations haunting him all the time.
It had very nearly been the end when they found him. Alex had almost been ready to let go.
The pain in his side brought him back. As Ben had cleaned and dressed the gash, the warm water had soothed him, and Alex lost track of time. Ben patted Alex's back, letting him know he was finished. Alex straightened and carefully lowered his back against the couch, mindful of the new bandaging.
"Does it hurt?" Ben asked cautiously as he disposed of the old bandaging. He had noticed Alex's muscles tightening and flexing a few times while he had been working. Was it his cut paining him, or something more?
"Hardly," Alex answered, his eyes not meeting Ben's. "At least not anymore."
Ben wasn't convinced. "Lie back," he said softly. "Let me have a look at your bullet injury."
"It's nothing. It didn't do any real damage. They said it –" Alex was cut off by his own sharp intake of breath. Ben had knelt down beside him and removed the bandaging around his wound. It smarted where the material had pulled at his skin.
"Not bad," Ben said, dabbing alcohol onto the healing scar. "But not nothing."
"It could have been worse," Alex countered. There was no irritation to his voice, but his comment seemed to have won over Ben's. Carefully, Ben's practiced hands methodically cleaned the wound.
"All the same…" Ben murmured anyway as he finished taping the gauze. "Done," he said cheerfully, looking up to find that Alex had been keeping his eyes squeezed shut the throughout the entire process.
Turning away, Ben began to clean up his supplies.
Alex stood up, located his shirt, and started to help Ben clear up, bringing a bloodied washcloth to the laundry basket in the spare bedroom.
"How are you?" Ben asked suddenly, finding Alex's eyes as he crept to the doorway. They both knew the question wasn't merely casual small talk. Alex opened his mouth to answer and Ben cut him off. "I mean how are you really? You don't have to fake it with me. Tell me."
The tidying up was now forgotten. It was quiet for a moment while Alex was lost in thought. "I don't know," he said finally. "It was a close one. I'd really thought I wasn't going to make it this time."
He paused. Ben waited patiently for him to continue.
"And it really hurt Jack. Stuff like this freaks her out, and it wasn't pretty this time. Everything's just been difficult."
Ben could empathise with Jack. When he'd gotten that call about Alex, he'd immediately expected the worst. Wolf had been on the rescue team, and he'd been the one to call him, describing how when they'd found him, Alex had been delirious. His vitals hadn't looked good, and he was covered in his own blood. Then it had been complete chaos getting him out. Wolf had been carrying him to the medevac copter, but it'd been difficult because he hadn't wanted to agitate Alex's side.
When they'd made it to the helicopter they discovered that somehow, in all the madness, a stray bullet had found Alex's abdomen. When they reached the hospital, he had been in the OR for hours, and somehow beat the odds yet again. "He's in recovery now," Wolf had concluded with an exhausted sigh.
Other than that, Ben hadn't heard anything about Alex. He'd managed to get hold of the mission file, but most of the information had been top secret and didn't give anything about Alex away. Only that he had been sent into some high class gang that specialized in trading heroin and illegal firearms. There were speculations that Scorpia was involved. The stakes were high, and the risks were even bigger. To Ben, it seemed Alex hadn't stood a chance from the start. But he'd always had a sort of protectiveness over Alex and seemed to be constantly underestimating him.
"God, I make such a mess," Alex said fiercely, snapping Ben's attention back.
"No, Alex. It's not your fault. You do all you can."
Alex pressed his fingers to his forehead. "It's not fair, though. Jack –"
"She'll come around," Ben said soothingly, putting his hand on Alex's shoulder. "I know it isn't fair, believe me. She's just worried about you, and I don't blame her."
"So blame me! I'm the one doing it to her!" Alex exploded, backing away from Ben. "I go out on these crazy missions, and how's she to know if I'll return home? I wish things were different; I wish I could just say no, but it's not that easy. And she's so helpless and alone all the time! This shouldn't be her burden, and –"
Alex broke off, one hand clutching his stomach, and the other over his most recent bullet wound, all the while breathing heavy.
"Alex? –" he seemed to be having difficulty catching his breath. He just shook his head.
"Alex," Ben tried again, more urgently, taking a step toward him. "It's alright, Alex." Ben took Alex's hands and placed them on his head to help him breathe better. Alex crumpled as Ben helped to lower him to the bed.
"It's – it's fine!" Alex panted out, panic in eyes betraying him.
Ben cut him off. "Breathe," he instructed.
It took a few moments, but Alex managed to calm himself down while Ben comforted him. When his breathing slowed to a normal rate, Ben spoke softly to him. "You had a panic attack."
Alex stared at his lap. "The doctors told me not to overexert myself," he said quietly, dropping one hand to his gunshot wound. "It's not good for the healing process. I hope I didn't tear the stitches." Alex raked his other hand through his dampened hair.
"Alex, you should be at home, resting."
"I've just told you; things aren't exactly simple there. And I had been resting; I just needed some air."
"How long has it been? Since you were discharged, I mean. "
Alex shrugged. "A few days."
"Alex –" Ben warned.
"Fine! I got home the day before yesterday. Alright? Please don't call them. I thought you'd understand!"
Ben was silent. He'd be lying if he said he couldn't empathise. He knew exactly how Alex was feeling now. But two days! Ben would have expected anyone in his position to be in bed with a heavy prescription of painkillers at this point. Ben sighed; it wasn't just anyone, it was Alex.
"Jack?" he asked, giving in.
Alex's face cracked into a timid smile. "I left a note."
Ben nodded. He'd have to call her later. "Alright. You can stay." Before Alex could thank him, Ben headed to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. "When's the last time you've taken something?" he called from the hallway.
"A couple hours ago. I'm on Vicodin."
"You're due for your next dose then. Here," he said, returning and tossing a bottle to Alex. "Take two."
Alex dry swallowed the pills with practiced ease, and then smirked at Ben. "Planning to just knock me out, then?" he teased, handing the painkillers back to Ben.
"Will it work?" Ben joked back, plopping down into the chair beside the bed and flicking the TV on to footie highlights.
"You'll have to be cleverer than trying to drug me," Alex said, but already his body was betraying him. It had been the first time in weeks that Alex had been properly on his feet, and now he was starting to feel it. The pills seemed to be kicking in and Alex was already fighting to keep his focus. He refused to let himself settle back into the pillows too comfortably.
"What a beautiful pass!" exclaimed Ben, thankfully not noticing the yawn Alex had tried to stifle. "Liverpool is going to take it this year. I'll bet you anything."
"You're on. I'll put ten pounds on Chelsea."
Ben snorted and gestured to the screen. "With games like that? What a terrible performance. I'd like to see…"
But Alex didn't have the energy to put his heart into the discussion anymore, as he felt himself slipping away into sleep. He'd worn himself out for the day, and had done quite well, all things considered. It wasn't long before he felt his eyelids close on him as he was sucked into the darkness.
Ben turned the TV off and covered Alex with a second blanket. Alex's breathing was deep and even; his expression relaxed and peaceful. Ben took a moment to survey the sleeping boy in front of him.
In his sleep, he seemed so innocent and vulnerable, a side that Alex rarely let show. Except for today. Something had forced him to let some of the walls he'd built up so nicely come down. Normally, Ben would never have pushed him so far, but something was different. Perhaps Alex was merely too exhausted to fight it, but he was finally beginning to open up.
It was late. Ben closed the door to Alex's room as he left and searched for the phone. He dialled the numbers that he'd memorized so long ago. A frantic voice answered the phone.
"He's here," Ben breathed. Across the line, Jack let out the breath she'd been holding, and Ben could imagine her relieved smile. "He's fine," he continued. "Sleeping now. I'll bring him in the morning."
Jack sighed. After a lingering pause, she said, "Goodnight, Ben. Thank you so much."